Books of the Year 2013

Choosing the books that I’ve loved, recommended and bought the most copies of for friends wasn’t difficult, whittling them down was. Because of that, I’ve gone for fifteen books that I enjoyed the most this year. If you click on the title of the book, it will take you to my original review.

Questions of Travel – Michelle de Kretser

Questions of Travel follows Laura and Ravi. Laura chooses to travel, using her inheritance from her aunt to do so; Ravi is forced to travel when the civil war in Sri Lanka visits his doorstep. de Kretser considers the myriad of ways in which we travel in modern society in a novel that’s sublimely written with a perfect ending. Winner of three awards in Australia, I’m astonished it hasn’t had a bigger fanfare in the UK.

 

Love, Nina – Nina Stibbe

Love, Nina contains a series of letters from Nina Stibbe to her sister Vic, written in the 1980s. At the time, Stibbe was a nanny to the sons of Mary Kay Wilmers, editor of the LRB. Alan Bennet frequently pops round for dinner, while the street contains a number of the UK literati. Stibbe’s letters are full of keen observations delivered in the same tone, regardless of the participants, and this makes the book both warm and humorous. It’s one of those books that’s larger than the sum of its parts. A joy.

Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty

Apple Tree Yard tells the story of Yvonne Carmichael, a 52-year-old geneticist, who embarks on an affair with a stranger. An affair that will threaten her family, her career and ultimately, her freedom. Told in retrospect beginning with Yvonne standing in the dock at the Old Bailey, Apple Tree Yard had me up late at night, frantically turning pages. It’s a tightly plotted tale with an ending that will leave you gasping.

 

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being is the dual narrative of Ruth, an American novelist living on a Canadian island, and Nao, a Japanese school girl. Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washed up on shore, containing Nao’s diary, some letters and a watch. She assumes it is debris from the 2011 tsunami. As Ruth reads Nao’s diary and the store of her family unfolds, we read Ruth’s story and are manipulated by it. A wonderful story of time and quantum physics.

 

 

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

After almost a decade of rejections, the small, independent Galley Beggar Press published this gem which went on to win The Goldsmith’s Prize. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is the story of an unnamed female narrator as told to (for?) her brother who is dying of a brain tumour. It is brutal both in its short, staccato prose and in content. (I don’t recommend reading it in the depths of January, it’ll send you over the edge.) This really is ‘a new voice in fiction’.

 

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

Winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, The Luminaries is a yarn of a tale set amongst gold diggers during the gold rush in New Zealand. It is a story of murder, theft and love with a with a structure that builds throughout the first half and explodes with revelations in the second. One to indulge in.

 

 

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo

Barrington Jedidiah Walker, 74, born in the Caribbean but resident in London has kept a secret for fifty years from his wife and two grown-up daughters: the love of his life, his best friend Morris. Barry decides it’s time to come-out but obviously, it’s not going to be that easy. Evaristo has a wonderful ear for dialogue and the rhythms of Barry and Carmel’s speech are a joy.

 

Jacob’s Folly – Rebecca Miller

A story told from the point of view of a fly shouldn’t work but it does and it does so brilliantly. The fly is the reincarnation of Jacob Cerf, an ex-peddler from 18th century France. When Jacob the fly becomes aware that he can influence others, he decides to meddle with the life of Masha Edelman, a 21-year-old Torah Jew and Leslie Senzatimore, a man who lives his life in order to help others. Miller uses their stories to consider whether we really have free will or whether our lives are constrained by other forces.

The Interestings – Meg Wolitzer

Six friends meet at summer camp in the 1970s and their lives become entwined forever despite the huge differences in their statuses. Wolitzer follows them through adult life looking at the choices they make and how these affect the whole group dynamic. It’s a dense novel but one that is driven forward by a non-linear narrative and a thread that you know is going to explode spectacularly.

 

The Engagements – J.Courtney Sullivan

The Engagements opens in 1947 with copywriter, Frances Gerety, creating the line ‘A diamond is forever’. The novel then goes on to intertwine her story – one of a woman who definitely doesn’t want an engagement ring – with those of four others: Evelyn Pearsall, whose son Teddy has just left his wife and children; James McKeen, a medical responder whose wife was recently mugged; Delphine Moreau, whose young lover has betrayed her, and a human rights officer whose helping with the preparations for her cousin Jeff’s wedding to his boyfriend, Toby. An unashamedly feminist look at our society’s values.

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd, bound to relive her life until the changes are made that prevent her previous death. The concept sounds bizarre, the execution is brilliant. Atkinson takes us through the war, affairs and a meeting with Hitler. The section of the novel during The Blitz is particularly well drawn, so much so, you’ll want to hide behind your hands during some passages. This one will leave you wanting to find someone else who’s read it to discuss in detail.

 

The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

The only book on the list not published this year, however it is one of this year’s Fiction Uncovered titles. Set in 1830, 14-year-old Mary tells us about life on her father’s farm with her four sisters and her elderly grandfather. Offered work at the vicarage, Mary is forced to go and tend for the vicar’s ill wife. When the vicar’s wife dies, she is kept on and the course of her life takes a turn for the worst. A novel about the control of men over women told with a voice that will have you rooting for this young girl.

 

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

The story of Theodore Decker, who’s caught in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, in which his mother dies. The attack leaves him with the painting ‘The Goldfinch’ in his possession and a ring that he’s to return to James Hobart. These two things will set his life on a dangerous course. Told in immersive detail, this is a wonderful novel which will have you living Theo’s eventful life alongside him.

 

The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls is the book that reignited my love of thrillers. It’s the story of Harper Curtis, time-travelling serial killer (stick with it, it works) and Kirby Mazrachi, who should have been one of his victims but who survives his attack and sets out to track him down. But The Shining Girls is more than that, it’s also the story of all Harper’s victims and those victims tell the story of women through the twentieth century. Shining, indeed.

 

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie – Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was the first book I read to make the list. It’s the story of Hattie, who leaves the segregated south for Philadelphia and a better life. Hattie is already pregnant with twins and with her womanising, gambling, alcoholic husband whom she can’t stay away from, Hattie will have another eight children. These, along with her first grandchild, form the twelve tribes of the title. Each chapter tells one of their stories, stories of homophobia, abuse and mental illness. A beautifully written story of a family and one woman’s quest for survival.

Thanks to all the publishers who’ve sent books for review this year.

Questions of Travel – Michelle de Kretser

When Laura was two, the twins decided to kill her.

Laura’s brothers decide to kill her because, having made an association between their younger sister being breast fed and their mother’s death, they think Laura is responsible for their mother contracting breast cancer. This immediately sets Laura up as an outsider.

Her father also recognises her status as such:

His daughter’s eyes were coins of a lowly bronze denomination. Crossing a room, she caused him to fear that she would collide with the furniture. He couldn’t conceive of the absence of beauty in a woman as anything other than a misfortune and had no doubt that he was responsible for Laura’s affliction.

Her position, alongside the stories Laura’s Aunt Hester tells her about her travels in Europe, means there’s no real surprise when Laura, on inheriting Hester’s fortune, sets ‘out to see the world’.

Laura’s story sits alongside that of Ravi.

The sea tugged patiently at the land, a child plucking at a sluggish parent. That was the sound behind all other sounds. Ravi’s life ran to its murmur of change.

Ravi lives in a little town in Sri Lanka and so, rather than traveling himself, is often exposed to tourists. Over a few short chapters we travel through Ravi’s life from childhood to marriage and a son of his own. We see his radical wife, Malini, and himself trying to live their life while the civil war continues:

One night, a little further down the coast, the incoming tide had brought what seemed to be a collection of colossal turds. The sun, creeping up on the array, revealed bodies from which the heads and limbs had been removed.

One of the things that most interests Ravi though is the way most of us now travel every day:

He was haunted by the sense that he was witnessing the birth of a new world. A digital revolution was gathering speed. He ached to be part of it. Soon it would transform the way people lived, he told Malini; its power, located everywhere and nowhere, would exceed armies. He used a word that had become fashionable: global.

De Kretser explores the idea of travel in a myriad of ways: being a tourist and collecting souvenirs; emigrating to another country; making housesitting a lifestyle choice; working on travel guides; seeking asylum; using the world wide web.

But this is not just a book of issues; de Kretser successfully marries her subject with the lives of Ravi and Laura, two characters whose stories we invest it.

Three things about this novel are beautifully executed: the plotting of Laura and Ravi’s lives is done in a way that makes them feel balanced without drawing them together in an obvious or clichéd manner; the end of the novel is as close to perfect as I think you could possibly get, and de Kretser’s descriptions are so precise and fresh they had me highlighting practically every page.

For example:

When there was a scorcher, afternoon tightened around the streets in a blinding bandage. On the nature strips, the nerve had gone from the grass. But in the park the light was necklaces and pendants looping through trees.

And:

The Pacific never tired of rubbing up to the city, a lively blue hand slipping in to grope.

And:

A waterfall in a forest was mourning its lost life as a cloud.

If I have a criticism of the book it’s that the short chapters, moving between Laura and Ravi and through their early years, meant it took a while for me to lodge the basic details of their situations. If I was in English teacher mode, I might say that de Kretser had done this deliberately to make the reader a tourist, travelling from one destination to another, but that might just make me a pretentious fool attempting to read too much into the use of a dual narrative. And why shouldn’t a reader be made to do some work?

Questions of Travel is a stunning book. It’s not an easy read (occasionally in both senses) but it is one that if you choose to invest, will return you a hefty reward. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michelle de Kretser’s name on this year’s Booker longlist.

 

 

Thanks to Little, Brown and Company for the review copy.